(Overdue) Song Review: Garth Brooks, “Ask Me How I Know”

All right Garth, you win: I’ll review your darn single.

When “Ask Me How I Know” was released back in March, Brooks’s antiquated “I determine how you listen to my songs” policy meant the track was nowhere to be found on the Internet, and I couldn’t find a full copy of the song to listen to for a review. At the time, I decided to punt on the song and ignore it, assuming that it wouldn’t make enough of a dent on the airplay charts to make a difference: His previous single “Baby, Let’s Lay Down And Dance” only made it to #15, and aging artists usually only get one chance at a last-gasp resurgence (think Randy Travis’s “Three Wooden Crosses”). To mix a few phrases, I thought Brooks’s golden goose was cooked.

It turns out, however, that when you’re Garth freaking Brooks, the normal rules of engagement don’t apply. After eight months of steady climbing, the song seems to be playing every time I turn on the radio, and it’s poised to reach No. #1 next week. It’s gotten to the point where my year-end song rankings would be incomplete without this track, so I finally bit the bullet and gave the song a fair shake. Ironically, what I found was a thought-provoking tune written specifically for people like me, and while it’s not peak Garth, it’s not bad.

The production here starts small, opening with an acoustic guitar and slowly mixing a rock-edged electric guitar and quiet drum set during the first verse. The minute the chorus hits, however, the song tries to morph into a full-fledged power ballad, amping up the electric guitar and tossing in a full string section (a choir eventually jumps in on the bridge) to increase its energy level. This attempt is only partially successful, however, as the production’s volume doesn’t increase enough to emerge from the shadow of the vocals. As a result, the guitars and drums feel a bit muted even during the choruses, and lack the intensity they needs to leave a meaningful impression on the listener. It’s a decent mix as it is, and its darker tones complement the serious tone of the writing, but it squanders its potential and ends up a step short of being great.

Vocally, Brooks reminds me of a late-career Greg Maddux: He’s lost several ticks off of his fastball, but he’s still got enough skill left to be effective. The man who effortlessly flew through the rapid-fire lyrics of “Ain’t Going Down (‘Til The Sun Comes Up)” sounds a bit stilted on the faster portions of the chorus here, and his voice gets a bit raspy on the lower-ranged portions of the verses. (Some of the blame here falls on the song, as it doesn’t fit his voice as well as “Baby, Let’s Lay Down And Dance” did.) Thankfully, Brooks’s voice retains enough of his classic tone to make him sound halfway decent, and he does an excellent job assuming the narrator’s role and making the song believable. His voice isn’t quite what it once was, but his charisma and earnestness have resisted the ravages of time, and on a song like this, that’s enough to get the job done.

The lyrics here are words of warning from a wizened, world-weary narrator, meant to alert the independent, hard-headed souls walking the same path that they will push away the ones they love and wind up with nothing but heartache and loneliness. I’ve noted in several prior reviews that I was not in the song’s targeted demographic, but in this case the writers couldn’t have targeted me any better if they tried. As such, I found that the writing was accurate in describing its intended audience and thought-provoking with its prophecies, as it makes the listener wonder just how much stock to put in the tale. However, I also felt that the song was a bit presumptuous in trying to apply a one-size-fits-all formula to every single person in this position, and makes its listeners more defensive than anything else(the song seems to anticipate this with its second verse: “Go on and shake your head/Tell me that I’m wrong…”). Additionally, if you’re not part of the song’s targeted demographic, the message holds no power at all and you’re got no reason to pay attention besides Brooks himself. For me, though, it’s nice to listen to a song that challenges your assumptions and make you think once in a while, and the writing here definitely achieves this goal.

“Ask Me How I Know” isn’t an emphatic declaration that Garth Brooks is back, and frankly, I wouldn’t even rank it among his top ten (or even twenty) singles. What it is, however, is a solid track by a solid performer, and amidst a sea of vapid singles from artists who couldn’t touch Brooks’s legacy with a ten-foot pole, you could do a lot worse than this.

Rating: 6/10. Give it a spin or two (if you can find it) and see what you think.